Time to get volunteering!

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This Saturday, wrapped up in a blanket and a scarf, I sat in our chilly conservatory for an hour and saw two blackbirds, a starling, a collared dove and a jackdaw in the garden.

Not the most impressive bird list you might say, but I think this one is important because it was my record for this year’s RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch. This amazing survey has been running for over 30 years, and has proved invaluable for tracking the long-term waxing and waning fortunes of some of Britain’s most familiar garden birds. Data for the scheme isn’t collected by professional ornithologists or scientists, but by interested members of the public, who each give up an hour of their day once a year to record the species they spot in their garden or local area.

Since the survey started, the numbers of some of our commonest species, such as the house sparrow and starling, have plummeted. Not that this scheme was set up to simply record the demise of biodiversity in the UK. Rather, by cataloguing how populations are changing, such information can inform conservation policy which can ultimately halt these declines.

The Big Garden Birdwatch isn’t the only way that interested amateurs are helping conservation and taking part in 'citizen science'. In fact, there are dozens of initiatives where citizen scientists are making a real contribution to conservation in the UK. For example, you can volunteer to take part in Moth Night 2012, run a butterfly transect with Butterfly Conservation, record breeding birds in your garden with the British Trust for Ornithology, and monitor plant distributions with the Botanical Society of the British Isles. You can also get involved with surveying and practical conservation more locally by taking part in work parties or monitoring projects at Wildlife Trust reserves around Cambridgeshire.

Amateur naturalists have been recording the species they see in their local area and making biological collections for centuries. In fact the UK has perhaps the best biological record of this kind in the world. In the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, we have such specimens dating back hundreds of years, representing an invaluable record of how species numbers and distributions have changed.

So why not get involved in citizen science yourself? There have never been more opportunities to contribute to research, to make a difference to conservation, and to learn more about the wildlife in your local area. What’s more, volunteering is even good for you and has been shown to increase your sense of happiness, satisfaction, self-esteem and physical health! More importantly it’s fun.

If you would like to learn more about ecological monitoring, conservation and natural history with the Institute of Continuing Education, then you can register on some of the weekend courses we are offering in 2012:

Dr Ed Turner, ICE Academic Director for Biological Sciences